Why assholes are more likely to be wrong

Sometimes, we form beliefs that we anticipate others will disagree with—from thinking a movie our friends unanimously loved was terrible, to developing a new scientific theory that upsets the current paradigm. Typically, our audience’s first reaction will be to think we’re dead wrong. They might even be offended. And maybe they’re right! In which case, not only did we risk offending friends or colleagues, we also look silly. Is it better to say nothing, then? But what if we are right? We might be depriving others of a great idea, or fail to correct a grave misconception, and pass on a chance to improve our status by doing so (see, e.g., Altay et al., 2020).

Arguably, there are two main factors that decide—in a given context—whether or not to speak out when we hold a belief we anticipate will be controversial.

First, there’s confidence. If we’re really sure we’re right, we should be more likely to challenge the status quo: being confident means we (think we) have fewer chances of looking stupid by spouting some inept idea, and more chances of reaping reputational rewards for our valuable insight. If you’re more confident, you’re more likely to speak up, in particular if the idea appears controversial.

Fortunately, in some contexts at least, there’s a reasonably strong correlation between confidence and accuracy (e.g., Bahrami et al., 2010; Koriat, 2008). This suggests that, on the whole, people who are more likely to be right are more likely to speak up.

The second factor is agreeableness (or lack thereof). There are people who are more careful about not rocking the boat, not offending anyone—people who want to be perceived as nice, people who want to “get along” instead of “standing out” (Ybarra et al., 2001). In personality psychology, this corresponds to people high in agreeableness, or in communion. Studies have shown that agreeableness is related to conformity, with agreeable people less likely to challenge a consensual opinion (DeYoung et al., 2002; Roccas et al., 2002).

At the end of the (dis)agreeableness scale, we find assholes. Philosopher Aaron James, who wrote the book on the topic, defines the asshole as someone who “allows himself to enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people” (James, 2014). This definition—and common sense—suggest that assholes are particularly likely to say things that others will disagree with, regardless of the social consequences. The present argument applies quite continuously on the agreeableness scale, but targeting assholes is more fun.

Taking stock, we can depict what we have so far in the following graph:

Each cross is a controversial thought in someone’s mind. There’s no reason to expect less agreeable people to be less likely to form accurate thoughts—they’re assholes, not idiots. That’s why there’s no correlation between the two dimensions. In particular, assholes (people on top of the graph) aren’t more likely to form ideas that are right or wrong than nice guys (at the bottom).

Everything changes when people decide whether to speak up. As argued above, this decision is a factor of both agreeableness (the y-axis) and odds of being right (or confidence) (the x-axis). If the combination of these two factors is above a given threshold (the red line), then people venture the controversial opinion. We thus end up with the following graph:

Here, everything that is below the red line doesn’t get said: there are ideas that might be right, but are held by very nice and shy people (bottom middle), the ideas of people who don’t care so much about what others think, but that are held with too little confidence (left middle), and the idea held with little confidence by shy people (those least likely to be voiced, bottom left).

If we focus on the thoughts above the red line, those that get said, a negative correlation emerges (red dotted line):

This is the well-known Berkson paradox (which I belatedly discovered there).

What this means is that, if we only look at what people say (not what they think), when venturing a controversial opinion, the more disagreeable someone is, the more likely they are to be wrong.

Assholes are more likely to be wrong.

This is quite intuitive: take a controversial idea held with little confidence, and thus likely to be wrong. Someone who’s very nice would never think of uttering it. By contrast, an asshole would have no such qualm. Consider now an idea held very confidently (and thus more likely to be right): both the nice guy and the asshole will share it. As a result, when a controversial idea is uttered by someone who doesn’t like rocking the boat, it’s a good sign that the idea is good. If the guy’s an asshole, and doesn’t have any filter, then we can’t tell how good the idea is.

Many people must have already thought of that, but to my great embarrassment, I don’t know who, so if that rings any bells, please let me know!

References

Altay, S., Majima, Y., & Mercier, H. (2020). It’s my idea! Reputation management and idea appropriation. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Bahrami, B., Olsen, K., Latham, P. E., Roepstorff, A., Rees, G., & Frith, C. D. (2010). Optimally interacting minds. Science, 329(5995), 1081–1085.

DeYoung, C. G., Peterson, J. B., & Higgins, D. M. (2002). Higher-order factors of the Big Five predict conformity: Are there neuroses of health? Personality and Individual Differences, 33(4), 533–552.

James, A. (2014). Assholes: A theory. Anchor.

Koriat, A. (2008). Subjective confidence in one’s answers: The consensuality principle. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34(4), 945–959.

Roccas, S., Sagiv, L., Schwartz, S. H., & Knafo, A. (2002). The big five personality factors and personal values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 789–801.

Ybarra, O., Chan, E., & Park, D. (2001). Young and old adults’ concerns about morality and competence. Motivation and Emotion, 25(2), 85–100.

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